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Fans flocking to see Tim Tebow in minor leagues

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Tebow popular with the autograph seekers (1:20)

Before the Columbia Fireflies' game on Monday, Tim Tebow draws a significant crowd looking for his autograph. (1:20)

LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- The line stretches from the end of the dugout past the third base bag, all the way to the left field foul pole. Fans in a collection of jerseys from Florida Gators and Denver Broncos blues to Jets and Eagles greens, all with the same name on the back: TEBOW. They're all hoping for the chance at an autograph or a picture.

Tim Tebow takes batting practice before the Columbia Fireflies take on the Lakewood BlueClaws on May 15.

Rachel Marcus, ESPN Editor

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Tebow draws a crowd at batting practice


In the history of minor league baseball, only Michael Jordan -- who famously left the NBA to join the White Sox Double-A affiliate Birmingham Barons -- had this type of affect on attendance.

For Tebow's team, the Columbia Fireflies, attendance is up more than 30 percent this year versus this time last year. Like Jordan's appearances did for the Southern League teams in 1994 (total league attendance that year topped 2.5 million fans), Tebow's presence has had an even more significant effect on the road for Class A South Atlantic League teams like the Lakewood BlueClaws.

For most road stops, having Tebow come to town is worth a doubling in attendance compared to a standard game. At its extreme, it's even more. The Hickory Crawdads drew more fans for the four games against the Fireflies (17,500) than they had for their first eight games leading up to the series (15,900). If Tebow stays the whole season in the league, road teams would see an additional cumulative $3.1 million from his presence, Baseball America calculated.

Plenty of Tim Tebow fans have showed up to support him in his quest to make it in another sport.

Darren Rovell, ESPN Senior Writer


Had Saturday's game between the Fireflies and BlueClaws not been rained out, team executives believe they would have sold more than 10,000 tickets for the only the fourth time in the team's 15-year history.

"He's a celebrity, and he's a brand," BlueClaws director of ticket sales Jim McNamara said. "People from all walks of life know who he is. He markets himself to sports fans, families and has a religious following. Plus, the casual fan into pop culture is interested in him."

On Monday, 8,180 people showed up to see Tebow, who played in the first game of a doubleheader. Lakewood was averaging 4,848 fans prior to Tebow's appearance.

Fans who came hours before to catch a glimpse of Tebow and get his autograph weren't disappointed.

Tom Fisher of Princeton, N.J., bought tickets to see Tim Tebow to play the Lakewood BlueClaws three weeks ahead of time. He and his friends drove an hour to the game.

Darren Rovell, ESPN Senior Writer

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Tebow fan buys tickets way in advance


Meet John and Grandpa Fred -- huge Tim Tebow fans who traveled from Brooklyn to see Tebow play in Lakewood, NJ. Many fans traveled over an hour and bought tickets weeks in advance to see Tebow.

Rachel Marcus, ESPN Editor

0:32

Huge Tebow fans meet their favorite player


Despite the encouragement from a handler to go back into the clubhouse, Tebow didn't stop until he signed for every person, a line of more than 100.

One fan gave Tebow a drawing of him in every uniform he has played in, from his days as a Florida Gator to his four stops in the NFL and lastly the Mets, with whom the Fireflies are affiliated. Selfies were also popular. Tebow happily obliged all requests.

Next week, the Lexington Legends will welcome Tebow and the Fireflies for the first time this season with a four-game homestand. By the end of it, Tebow might start recognizing people in the crowd. The team sold a package ($99 for box seats, $129 for field box) to fans to buy all 11 of Tebow's games in Lexington.

For Jason Freier, owner of the Columbia Fireflies, Tebow's addition to the team is obviously welcomed -- especially since Freier himself doesn't have to pay him. In one of the greatest values in sports, the Mets, who gave Tebow a $100,000 signing bonus, pay him less than $55 per day to play.

After the 2015 season, Freier left Savannah, where the team had been playing in a ballpark constructed in 1926, for Columbia. The city agreed to pay for most of the ballpark, but Freier's company, Hardball Capital, chipped in $6 million. The investment is paying off now.

"The fact that we were the lowest full-season baseball option for the Mets to send Tim made sense," Freier said. "But we also had a brand new stadium with a field as good as any with top-notch weight facilities."

The idea, at least in principle, is that if Tebow is to improve, playing with Columbia gives him the best chance.

In 31 games, he is batting .227 with two home runs and 11 RBIs.

It's a bit of a dilemma for Freier. He wants Tebow to do well, but if he does too well, Columbia might lose him.

While Freier has seen individual players bring in fans before on other minor league teams he owned, they've never flocked to the ballpark with the consistency they do for Tebow.

Mets prospect and Columbia Fireflies CF Desmond Lindsay views teammate Tim Tebow's presence on the team as beneficial for the players.

Rachel Marcus, ESPN Editor

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Tebow's teammate relishes influx of fans


"In Fort Wayne, we had (Indians pitcher) Corey Kluber in 2008 and Josh Van Meter, who was a local hero who had won the state championship the year before," Freier said. "But nothing like this."

Tebow made his name in the SEC, and Columbia is home to the South Carolina Gamecocks, who play in the conference.

"We would have gotten even more attention had the men's and women's basketball team not been in the Final Four just as our season was starting out," Freier said. "It was all people were focusing on in town."

Aside from tickets, there's the merchandise. Freier won't say how much Tebow has generated, but the team is selling eight different Tebow jerseys.

Said team broadcaster Sam Hyman: "We've shipped a lot of them out to so many different parts of the country."